Close up of a concert poster for the 10-piece ensemble live concert of Gretta Harley's Elenet 115 on a pole with other concert posters.
The Rush of Performing vs. Merely Being a Witness

The Rush of Performing vs. Merely Being a Witness

I can’t find anything that compares to the feeling I have when hearing what I imagined in my inner ear played in real time. I get a rush when I perform, especially premiering a new piece in front of an audience, or when the musicians that I’m playing with sound exceptionally good—when we are all gelling, the stars align and we’re breathing together, and that exact moment is the only moment and it is perfect.

When I’m in the audience, listening to others play the music I write down on paper, my heart races. Time slows down and I hold my breath. I am merely a witness to the music. The feeling is simultaneously one of helplessness and euphoria.

It’s a different feeling than when I’m in the audience, listening to others play the music I write down on paper. My heart races. Time slows down and I hold my breath. I am merely a witness to the music. The feeling is simultaneously one of helplessness and euphoria. And because the music is an intimate part of me, I’m hearing every mistake and recognizing every wonderful nuance intended or not intended. I feel like a fly on the wall, looking from above while listening from within, and playing witness to the sounds in the room that weren’t there a moment ago.

I am a tiny fish in a vast ocean of prodigious living composers, or maybe more like an amoeba. I do not receive nor seek large commissions, and I do not have my music played by various ensembles all over the world. But I did have the fortunate opportunity to write for and hear my full orchestral composition played by the Seattle Philharmonic. The opportunity came in a composition class when my then-professor and composition mentor, Janice Giteck, secured the orchestra. Only four of the thirteen students in the class were invited to write for the full orchestra. The other students wrote for sections (brass, string, or wind sections). Every week through the semester, the class sat with the players at rehearsals, observing, collecting questions and observations to bring to class the next day, and taking notes for our own pieces. To write for an entire orchestra was overwhelming, intimidating, and wholly exciting. There was a public reading of my piece, and the conductor, Marsha Mabrey, instructed the players to begin. She stopped them a few times to go over various parts of the piece, clarifying with the players what I had put on the page. (It was completely handwritten, pre-computers, pre-software. I use Sibelius now.) As the sounds began to fill the room that simultaneous feeling of helplessness and euphoria immerged.

One of the biggest challenges that a composer faces when handing her music to players is ensuring that what she has placed on the page is an exact translation of what she wants to hear. Every nuance must be detailed appropriately–not just the pitches and rhythms, but every articulation, dynamic marking, tempo(s), and rehearsal marking, etc. I have also written pieces that have aleatoric and improvisational components involved, and they also must be carefully, painstakingly mapped out in order to communicate the set details and geography of the music accurately. If the instructions are not clear and I am present at rehearsal(s), the players can ask me questions. But it’s better to have my notes as clear as possible so that the limited time I usually have for a rehearsal is spent playing, not translating how to read my score. If I want the piece to grow legs and live outside of my watchful proximity, I need to trust that the score is clear and will be played to my liking.

Although I showed up at my recording session with Kramer in Florida with no written-out scores, I experienced feelings not unlike those helpless and euphoric ones. Kramer is a sculptor of music, a sound painter. He chooses a color and starts molding, not quite sure where the “brush” will take him at times. He says things like, “Let me just play around for a bit until I know what I want.” I relate to this style of music making, too, because it’s how I start writing most often.

Kramer in front of a laptop.

Kramer during our recording sessions in his studio, Noise St. Augustine

We began recording at the beginning of my song cycle. The first time I heard the first song (“Kaleidoscope Eyes”) all put together with its various instrumentation—piano, mellotron, glass armonica, cymbals, organ, panting voices, horns, strings (some acoustic, some digital)—I cried. I did. I was in tears. It was all I imagined, only much better. The exchange of our ideas was generous and ultimately resulted in a magic that I had hoped for, but it was unexpected in other ways. I continued to have that euphoric feeling song after song, without the helpless part. There was an unspoken agreement to almost all of the choices we made together. Sometimes music is better in a collaboration; and although I wrote all of the songs and many of the instrumental parts, this record feels like a collaboration to me.

In my previous post, “Creation is Messy,” I indicated that there is an “incredible amount of work and planning” that goes into bringing our imaginings to others, but I didn’t go into much detail. This fourth and last essay, I’ll get more specific about the process, of both pre- and post-production of Element 115 (Uup).

There are so, so many things that go on behind the scenes in any art form. Whether it is the hours a day (for years and years) that the artist hones her craft or the months and years of planning logistical details before one concert, it takes a lot of painstaking work for it to appear organic, or to look easy, and to welcome the audience in.

After playing this song cycle in various ways: solo, with a band, recording it with a creative producer, the music didn’t feel finished yet. I realized the next step was to hear it with a chamber ensemble. I wanted the orchestration to align with the arrangements that Kramer and I came up with. I began orchestrating, but I work rather slowly and had so many other logistics to juggle if I wanted a well-attended performance. Andrew Joslyn is a beloved composer and arranger in Seattle and I asked for his help. This was such a good decision. He took the recording and filtered the music through Sibelius. This saved hours and hours of work, but the program didn’t spit out the scores accurately. They had no dynamics or articulation markings; rhythms and meters were not correct, so there was a lot of clean-up work that had to be done. Andrew was also given permission to add his own ideas; most of them I kept, but some I didn’t. We divided up the pieces and within about 4-6 weeks all the parts were finished for all 14 songs in the song cycle. We were orchestrating to a specific ensemble and couldn’t have all of the sounds that were available to us in Kramer’s vast sound library, so alternative choices were made.

Gretta Harley holding a guitar in her lap with two microphones in front of her.

During the recording sessions at Noise St. Augustine

While the scores were being prepared, I was organizing the rehearsals. The wonderful thing about being able to work with top players is that they are top players. The downside of working with top players is that their schedules are always full. I secured ten players several months before the release concert, sending them contracts while hosting a crowdfunding campaign to pay their fees and for post-production of the record. I confirmed the rehearsal dates with the large group but continuously ran into scheduling conflicts with the rhythm section, which I rehearsed prior to and separate from the full ensemble rehearsals. I would meet with one of the piano players on one day and the other on a different day, for example. Not all of the rhythmic players read music. I tailored the scores so that they could read them, and some learned their parts mostly by ear, listening to the recording.

When I wasn’t soliciting money, rehearsing, or orchestrating, I was doing things like going to dress fittings or meeting with my publicist, web designer, or intern about things like T-shirts, business cards, posters, website design, and social media. Or I was printing out press releases and stuffing envelopes with promo CDs and making trips to the post office. I was preparing for and anticipating anything and everything that could happen, and still surprises and challenges popped up along the way.

I find working with students to be a great value for all parties. They are looking for hands-on experience and I am looking for hands.

When working on a project of this scale, getting help to do some of the tasks is crucial. These details are tedious and can be a giant pain in the ass. I find working with students to be a great value for all parties. They are looking for hands-on experience and I am looking for hands. In this case, I was able to depend on some people, and others made more work for me because I am a bit of a control freak, and I had to redo some things to my liking. But all in all, this community making-a-show idea is a pretty great way to do it.

One of my composition students at Cornish College of the Arts came to the first large ensemble rehearsal and jotted down notes as I yelled things like, “Check the horn part in measure 21.” I brought my computer to the rehearsal and she was able to go right into the score and make the definite changes, like “That note on the second beat in the flute part should be an octave higher.” I hired a conductor, Roger Nelson. He was one of my beloved professors when I was a student at Cornish, and I enjoyed getting to know him as a colleague during the 12 years I taught there. Having a calm person in the room who knew the material was invaluable. I gave him the scores a month in advance, and we went over in detail how we would rehearse the pieces. Delegation is an important aspect in getting anything done. Choosing trusted people to delegate to is imperative.

I secured the sound engineer I wanted a few months before the show. I planned a full rehearsal one week before the performance in the venue. I hired the sound engineer and the video designer to attend that rehearsal so that they weren’t running the show for the first time at the premiere. I invited a lighting designer to come the a rehearsal too and he had the opportunity to realize he wanted to loan the club some backlighting for the concert

Because I had never before gone on stage to sing without a guitar strapped to me, or a piano or keyboard in front of me, I wasn’t sure if I was going to look stupid.

Because I had never before gone on stage to sing without a guitar strapped to me, or a piano or keyboard in front of me, I wasn’t sure if I was going to look stupid. From all my years working in theater, I know that images are powerful and physical habits people have can be distracting. So I asked two of my friends, Kristen Kosmas and Elizabeth Kenny, both directors whose visual tastes align with mine, to offer advice about any of my weird tics at our dress rehearsal. They made only a few suggestions, like keep your arms still until at least the third song. Apparently that was good a choice.

The video slideshow of images choreographed with media designer Justin Roberts was to run with the music. We argued about the type of screen to use but we ended up following his inclination, which was more of a financial consideration than an artistic one. Although I loved his work on this piece, I do wish I had the money to have enveloped the stage as I envisioned. There are always compromises and choosing which things to let go of.

The night of the concert, after a long rehearsal, I was getting my hair and makeup done two blocks away from the venue when the texts started pouring in. “Where are you?” My stage manager was getting antsy. I think I may have jogged a bit in the custom-made dress after realizing it was 7:45 p.m. I peered into the audience from backstage and the venue was full. The house was sold out. My stage manager handed me a small glass of whiskey. The players were already tuning up on stage. Roger checked in with me. I said I was ready. I stood taking deep breaths at the door jam backstage as the orchestra played that long introduction of “Kaleidoscope Eyes.” My heart raced. Time slowed down and I tried to keep breathing. As I walked slowly to the stage, I felt both in control and very trusting of everyone in the ensemble. We had worked hard. We were ready. I had excellent players who had my back. The audience felt good. (You can sometimes feel the energy in the room before anything happens.) This was a good feeling. Friends came from New York, D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco to hear this music and to support the efforts that had started exactly two years prior. I was giving birth finally. I can’t find anything that compares to the feeling–hearing what I imagined in my inner ear played in real time.

A concert poster for the 10-piece ensemble live concert of Gretta Harley's Elenet 115 on a pole with other concert posters.

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